They say Nevada is the “Silver State,” but for political junkies this week it’s been golden. A tumultuous chain reaction of political events has just rocked the state, creating serious implications for 2012’s critical elections in which Nevada might be the country’s top swing state.
Republican rising stars didn’t get much brighter than John Ensign. A young, telegenic and personable politico, he was elected to the House at 36 and to the Senate at 42. In a politically competitive state, his 14-point reelection in 2006 over Jack Carter, the former president’s son, heralded his bright political future. Running for the presidency became a real possibility.
Then the walls came tumbling down. The Evangelical, family values-touting Ensign humiliatingly revealed that he had been having an affair with Cindy Hampton from 2007 until 2008. Her husband, Doug, was one of Ensign’s top staffers and close friends. The story got even more grisly when it was discovered that Ensign’s parents paid Doug Hampton $96,000 in an attempt to buy his silence. His hypocrisy and sleaziness now expanded to include federal ethics violations.
Ensign, like most political egos, took his sweet time in coming to terms with the full extent of his sins. As Senate Ethics Committee investigations against him raged, he maintained he would seek re-election to the Senate in 2012 until announcing his retirement on March 7 of this year.
The candidates to replace Ensign immediately exploded out of the gates. While primary competition is a possibility, the general election candidates are virtually locked in. The Democrat will almost surely be Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, who has represented urban Las Vegas since 1999. A reliable liberal and favorite of the grassroots and party establishment, Berkley hopes to latch onto the robust re-elect effort made by President Obama in Nevada, as well as Senator Harry Reid’s top-notch political machine.
Her Republican opponent will be Congressman Dean Heller, who represents the massive Second District, which covers virtually all of Nevada outside of Las Vegas. A former member of the Nevada Assembly, three-term Secretary of State and popular congressman, the young and dynamic Heller is well known, well liked and well financed. While Republican primaries in Nevada have been internecine affairs in the past, Heller immediately locked down the endorsements of Governor Brian Sandoval, Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki and the state GOP’s top brass.
A marquee 2012 Senate race was kicked up a notch just a few days ago when Ensign shockingly tendered his resignation, effective May 3. The move came in light of the fact that the ethics case against the senator had grown overwhelming. For his personal sake, and for the good of his family and constituents, he made the right choice in stepping aside.
The spotlight turned to Governor Sandoval, who announced Wednesday he was appointing Heller to fill the remainder of Ensign’s term. This move is a coup for the GOP. Heller will elevate his statewide profile, be able to tap into more funding and can avoid controversial House votes as he heads toward a general election face-off with Berkley next November. A Public Policy Polling survey of the race, conducted April 21-24, had Heller at 47 percent to Berkley’s 43 percent, with a 4.4 percent margin of error. The race will surely be tight, and while it is too soon to call Heller the overwhelming favorite, his effort was boosted by his early elevation to the upper chamber.
For the first time in Nevada’s history, the state will be forced to hold a special election for Heller’s soon-to-be vacant Second District seat. Already, a rambunctious field has been announced. 2010 failed GOP Senate nominee and Tea Party darling Sharron Angle soaks up much of the limelight. But she will face tough competition against the Republican company, including State Senator Greg Brower and former U.S.S. Cole Commander Kirk Lippold. State GOP Chairman Mark Amodei and Lieutenant Governor Krolicki are all rumored to be entering the race as well.
Unfortunately, election law is unclear. Secretary of State Ross Miller must decide whether an all-candidate primary should be held, or if parties should pick their nominees behind closed doors. The latter would shut out Angle to the delight of the GOP establishment. Miller’s decision could affect either party’s ability to win the seat. However, all is moot considering Nevada will redistrict, which will add a fourth seat for the state in 2012. For the time being, Nevada’s delegation in the House of Representatives will be nothing short of chaotic.
Stay glued to Nevada throughout 2011 and into 2012. The state is almost a perfect toss-up, and developments before the presidential election next year could be telling signs of the direction in which our country is heading.
Sam Dulik is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at [email protected] Quorum Call appears every other Friday.